Classics Challenge – April Prompt: the Book Cover

Katherine at November’s Autumn hosts the Classics Challenge. This month’s focus is the Book Cover. The old and worn adage of never judging a book by its cover is partly true but a book cover tells the reader a lot about what’s inside you can usually tell what genre it is or what time period it takes place in.

What are your first impressions as you look at the cover? Does the book cover have an aspect that reflects the character, setting, or plot of the novel?  If you could have designed the book cover what would you have chosen?

Currently I’m reading Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte on my Kindle. I knew nothing about it before I began reading. There is no information on the Kindle e-book about the cover illustration and I don’t think it gives many clues about the book.

 My first impression on looking at the cover was that the character of Agnes Grey may have been a lady’s maid in a large household. However, I soon discovered that she is the impoverished daughter of a clergyman and she is employed as a governess to the unruly and spoilt children of wealthy families.

The cover does reflect the setting of the novel in Victorian times, although not the position Agnes has in the household – she is not a servant.  But it does reflect Agnes’s character as she is demure, gentle and rather timid. I’ve not finished the book yet, but so far Agnes has been totally unable to control the awful children in her charge and is not given any authority to reprimand them from their parents. The lone figure on the cover reflects the position in which Agnes finds herself – alone and unsupported by her employers.

If I could have designed the book cover I think I would have chosen a similar scene, but would have chosen one showing a governess and the children.

March Prompt – A Classics Challenge

The focus this month in the Classics Challenge is on Setting.

I’ve just finished re-reading (for the umpteenth time) Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Each time I read it I still enjoy it immensely. I think knowing what happens next adds to the pleasure. I read it this time looking out for information about the settings – something I haven’t done before, although Pemberley always stands out!

There are many locations, but for this post I’ve chosen Longbourn.

Pride and Prejudice is a novel based on character, plot and is a study of society in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, but above all it is a love story. The settings provide an essential backdrop but in most cases leave a lot to the reader’s imagination; dialogue takes precedence over description – place is really unimportant.

The book begins with no indication of its setting, or time of day, with a conversation between two characters – Mr and Mrs Bennet. And it is only in the third chapter that the location is revealed and then all we learn is that that the family lives in the village of Longbourn, where they are the principal inhabitants. More information about Longbourn is scattered throughout the book. It’s one mile from the village of Meryton, in Hertfordshire, where the militia are quartered for a while, and twenty four miles from London.

Longbourn House is the family home of the Bennets. There is little description of the house. It must be quite large, it has land – an estate, including a farm. The family have the use of a carriage and horses, when they are not needed for farm work. There are servants – a butler, housekeeper, cook and maids, a drawing room, dining-parlour, and dressing rooms as well as bedrooms. There are gardens, with gravel walks, a shrubbery, a hermitage, and what Lady Catherine de Burgh called  ‘a prettyish kind of little wilderness on one side of your lawn.’

Reading the book I haven’t formed a definite picture in my mind what Longbourn House looks like, although I like this one from the 1995 TV series.

Luckington Court the 1995 TV location of Longbourn House © Copyright Paul Ashwin and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence


Choosing a Classic

It’s time I began reading another classic for the Classics Challenge. I thought I’d look at the openings of some to see which takes my fancy.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell:

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room – a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she awakened herself ‘as sure as clockwork’, and left the household very little peace afterwards.

It reminds me of the children’s song Old MacDonald had a Farm with its repetitions. The little girl is Molly Gibson and Betty with the unseen powers is the family’s servant. It promises a story of a family and Molly’s place within it and this opening interests me. I don’t know anything about the book and have not seen any of the TV adaptations, so I’m coming to it with a completely open mind – no other interpretations to influence my reading of Elizabeth Gaskell’s words.

Silas Marner by George Eliot:

In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses – and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak – there might be seen, in districts far away from the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.

This one looks good too about village/rural life at the beginning of the 19th century. The only book by George Eliot that I’ve read is Middlemarch, which I loved. You have to have time and patience to read her books. Silas Marner, however, is a much shorter book with less characters than Middlemarch.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome:

There were four of us – George and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were – bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course.

We were all feeling seedy, and we were getting quite nervous about it.

Yet another author I know nothing about and as for the book I only know it’s reckoned to be a comedy. Again I have very few preconceptions about this book and have no ideas about the characters or what happens. I think Montmorency may be a dog as the book’s full title is Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog).

Now I just have to decide which one to read.

A Classics Challenge – February Prompt: Character

This month’s focus from Katherine of November’s Autumn for the Classics Challenge is on character. Write about a character you find interesting, it doesn’t have to be your favorite. Perhaps your least favorite or a minor one: choose any.

I’m answering a combination of her Level 1 and 2 questions. What phrases has the author used to introduce this character? Find a portrait or photograph that closely embodies how you imagine them.  Has your opinion of them altered? Do you find them believable? Would you want to meet them?

I read The Woman in White in January and wrote some thoughts about previously. The book has some very interesting characters and I’ve chosen to describe the villain – Count Fosco, a friend of Sir Percy Glyde.

We see him first through Marian Halcombe’s eyes (see my earlier post for her description). She is Laura’s half- sister and I think she is the real heroine of this book. She describes Fosco:

He looks like a man who could tame anything. If he had married a tigress, instead of a woman, he would have tamed the tigress.

The man has interested me, has attracted me, has forced me to like him.

he is immensely fat. Before this time I have always disliked corpulent humanity.

here, nevertheless, is Count Fosco, as fat as Henry the Eighth himself, established in my favour, at one day’s notice, without let or hindrance from his own odious corpulence. Marvellous indeed!

She is impressed most by his unfathomable grey eyes, which have a cold, beautiful, irresistible glitter and hold an extraordinary power, one which forces her to look at him and causes her sensations she would rather not feel. Although an Italian, he speaks excellent English. He is old (sixty!), but his movements are light and easy. He is very sensitive to noise and winced when Sir Percy Beat one of the spaniels – he cares for animals more than he cares for humans.

And his most curious peculiarity is his fondness for pet animals – a cockatoo, two canaries and a whole family of white mice, all of which are familiar with him. The birds sit on his fat fingers and the mice crawl all over him, popping in and out of his waistcoat. He kisses them and twitters to his birds.

Below is an illustration from the 1865 edition of the book, which doesn’t really portray him as I see him.

But this is more like it – Michael Crawford’s portrayal in the West End musical in 2004.

As for his character, Marian may be attracted to him, but he is is a true villain, completely domineering, sinister, clever and untrustworthy. He is powerful, a sensualist whose wife is completely besotted by him. Whilst it might seem from my description that Fosco is a caricature, he does come across as a believable character and certainly one I would not wish to meet.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: a Book Review

I read The Woman in White (TWIW) by Wilkie Collins in January and have been wondering how to do justice to it in a post, because it’s a real chunkster of over 700 pages. (For a summary of the plot, with spoilers see the article on the book on Wikipedia.)

It’s one of the first if not the first ‘sensation novel‘. A ‘sensation novel‘ is one with Gothic elements  – murder, mystery, horror and suspense – within a domestic setting. Since reading TWIW I’ve read The Sensation Novel by Lyn Pykett, which describes such novels as a ‘minor subgenre of British fiction that flourished in the 1860s only to die out a decade or two earlier.’ They have complicated plots, are set in modern times, and are reliant on coincidences, with plots hinging on murder, madness and bigamy. They exploited the fear that respectable Victorian families had of hidden, dark secrets and explored the woman’s role in the family. There is a pre-occupation with the law – wills, inheritance, divorce and women’s rights over property and child custody. They are emotional dramas about obsessive and disturbed mental states, with villains hiding behind respectable fronts, and bold assertive women, as well as passive, powerless and compliant women.

These issues and more are present in TWIW. It has several first person narrators, who are each not in possession of the whole story. Their accounts from letters, diaries and formal statements are limited to what each one knew or had experienced, and are not always reliable. It begins with Walter Hartright’s meeting with the mysterious Woman in White, as he is on his way to take up the position of drawing master to Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie at Limmeridge House, in Cumberland.

 There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London as I faced her.

Just who she is only becomes clear much later on the story. During their conversation she reveals that she knows Limmeridge House and its occupants. Walter helps her, but then is filled with guilt when he is told that she had escaped from an asylum.

Laura and Marian are half-sisters, living with their uncle, Frederick Fairlie, a weak, effeminate invalid. Walter is immediately struck by the beauty of Marian’s figure, but astonished when he saw her face:

The lady is ugly! …

The lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead.

Marian, clever and assertive is in complete contrast in both appearance and character to the lovely Laura. Walter falls in love with Laura, but she is pledged to marry Sir Percy Glyde, a marriage arranged by her dead father. Matters are complicated by the fact that Laura and the Woman in White look remarkably alike, which is central to the plot. Sir Percy attempts to gain total control of Laura’s money and property, aided by the villainous Count Fosco.

I found it a book of two halves – slow to get going, full of descriptive writing and I was beginning to wonder when something was actually going to happen. Then in the second half the pace increased, the action was fast and complicated, with plenty of tension and melodrama. I enjoyed it, although I do prefer The Moonstone.

I read this book as part of November’s Autumn Classics Challenge and The Book Garden’s Tea and Books Challenge (reading books of over 700 pages).

Wilkie Collins: A Classics Challenge – January Prompt

The Classics Challenge has started and the first book I’m reading is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Katherine at November’s Autumn has provided some questions at different levels, depending on how much of the book you’ve read. I’m starting with level 1:

The Author:

Who is the author? What do they look like? When were they born? Where did they live? What does their handwriting look like? What are some of the other novels they’ve written? What is an interesting and random fact about their life?

Wilkie Collins (1824 – 1889)

Wilkie Collins was born in Marylebone, London and lived in a number of houses in the area:
  • Blandford Square (1848-1850)
  • Hanover Terrace (1850-1856)
  • Harley Place (1856-1857)
  • Harley Street (1860-1864)
  • Melcombe Place (1864-1867)
  • Gloucester Place (1867-1888)
  • Wimpole Street (1888-1889)

He wrote 30 novels, more than 60 short stories, 14 plays, and over 100 non-fiction pieces. His best-known works are The Woman in WhiteThe MoonstoneArmadale and No Name.

Collins’s handwriting:

Collins also considered a career in painting and exhibited a picture at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1849.

A Classics Challenge 2012

It’s that time of year when ‘challenges’ for next year keep appearing on book blogs. Each year I think I won’t join in and each year I do attempt a few. Here’s one that appeals to me, but not as a ‘challenge’ (see my previous post for my views about ‘challenges’). This one promises to be more interactive:

It’s A Classics Challenge, devised by Katherine Cox of November’s Autumn. It involves reading seven works of Classic Literature in 2012, but only three of the seven may be re-reads.

But, instead of writing a review as you finish each book (of course, you can do that too), visit November’s Autumn on the 4th of each month from January 2012 – December 2012, where you will find a prompt, it will be general enough that no matter which Classic you’re reading or how far into it, you will be able to answer. There will be a form for everyone to link to their post.

I like the idea.

My Reading List

I have quite a lot of unread classics on my bookshelves and even more loaded onto my Kindle, so I have plenty to choose from. At present I think I’ll start with these seven books (but the titles could most likely be substituted for others when I actually get down to reading!)

  • Emma by Jane Austen – a re-read. I first read this many years ago. Recently I read Sebastian Faulks’s view of Emma as a snob in his book Faulks on Fiction and decided it was time to re-read the book.
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. I read The Moonstone earlier this year and liked it very much, which spurred me on to get The Woman in White.
  • Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome – a book that I’ve known about for ages, but have never read. It’s a humorous story of a boating expedition on the River Thames. I’m looking forward to some comedy.
  • Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. The only Gaskell book I’ve read is Cranford – time to remedy that with this tale of the mid-19th century England pre the Industrial Revolution.
  • Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m re-living my youth with this book, which I first read at school, when I was about 13 or 14. I can’t remember much about it, except that I thoroughly enjoyed it at the time. It’s historical fiction set in 18th century Scotland, based on real people.
  • Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. This is a mammoth book (nearly 900 pages) with many characters. I hope I don’t get bogged down in it – it looks as though I’ll need to concentrate.
  • The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf. I began to read this (Woolf’s first novel) a few years ago. I love Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, but the opening of this didn’t grab my attention as much and I got distracted by other books. I’ll have to start it again.

Writing this has made me keen to read them all – but which one to pick first?